This Week in Congress — June 1, 2015 re: USA Freedom Act, Surveillance Authorization, Appropriations
After a brief one-week recess for Memorial Day, both chambers are back in town with a full agenda. The Senate returns to work on Sunday, May 31. Prior to breaking for Memorial Day, the Senate failed to bring to the Floor for consideration legislation to extend the surveillance authorities that are expiring on June 1. The House had passed the USA Freedom Act prior to its Memorial Day recess and sent the bill to the Senate. That bill makes a variety of reforms to the existing program. Leader McConnell and a large bloc of Republican senators, however, oppose the reforms in that bill and proposed a clean renewal of the existing authorities. A motion to proceed to the House bill failed to secure the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, but so did a motion to proceed to a short-term extension of the existing program to permit more time to work on a compromise.
The Senate therefore returns on Sunday to deal with a program that will expire on Monday if the Senate takes no action. Although it failed to garner 60 votes prior to the recess, with the stark options now confronting the Senate, the House-passed bill might command sufficient votes among Republicans to secure cloture on the motion to proceed and to pass. If Republicans remain largely united in their opposition to the House bill, the path forward is uncertain and the authorization for the collection of meta-data are likely to expire on Monday, and remain expired until and unless renewed subsequently. If a compromise bill other than the USA Freedom Act does pass the Senate on Sunday or Monday, the House returns on Monday and would be able to consider it so as to prevent the authorization from lapsing.
The Senate’s schedule following its debate on surveillance authorization is unclear, and the Leader has not announced what the Senate will consider next. One likely candidate for floor consideration is the Defense Authorization bill, which was reported by the Armed Services Committee in May. Expect strong debate surrounding the defense budget and the perilous state of the world, with the fight against the Islamic State not showing significant progress, tensions rising in the South China Sea, robust Russian military activities as during the Cold War, the pan-Arab campaign in Yemen, and relatedly the rising strategic role in the region of Iran.
Also likely in the coming weeks, we can expect floor debate over the renewal of the Export-Import Bank, whose charter expires June 30. Leader McConnell committed to allowing the reauthorization of the Bank to come to the Floor in order to lay aside an amendment on the subject when the Senate was considering the Trade Promotion Authority bill it passed prior to Memorial Day. The debate in the Senate is not expected to be as contentious as it will be in the House, where Speaker Boehner said the issue would come up if the Senate, as expected, passes a bill to renew the Bank’s charter.
The House returns to session on Monday and starts the week, as usual, with a number of non-controversial bills being brought up under suspension of the rules. This week, the suspension calendar is made up of bills from the Natural Resources, Transportation, and Foreign Affairs Committees. The House will then consider H.R. 1335, a bill to reauthorize and reform fisheries management under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, under a structured rule. And the schedule notes that the House may consider legislation related to the expiring surveillance authorization.
The rest of the week will be consumed with appropriations work, as the House tackles the Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations bill and the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill.
In addition to the full House considering two appropriations bills, the House Appropriations Committee will mark up two further bills next week. On Tuesday, it will consider the Defense Appropriations bill, and on Wednesday it will mark up the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations bill. The fate of the Export-Import Bank will also consume hearing time on both sides of the Capitol this week. On Tuesday and Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will examine the Bank. On Tuesday, outside witnesses will testify, and on Thursday the Committee will hear from Fred Hochberg, the Bank’s president. In between, on Wednesday, the House Financial Services Committee, chaired by ardent Bank opponent Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), will hold a hearing on the Bank.
Other Senate hearings of note this week include the Agriculture Committee hearing on Wednesday on foreign countries’ agricultural subsidies; the Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, taking place during the ongoing negotiations on that program; the Energy Committee hearing on Tuesday on the severe drought conditions in the west; and the Finance Committee hearing on the cyber-intrusion at the IRS, revealed only last week.
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to begin its markup of its patent-litigation reform bill. The bipartisan bill, introduced by, among others, Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) (the Republican Whip), and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) (the next Senate Democratic Leader) reflects a compromise approach as compared to the House bill introduced by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). A number of groups are pressing for additional provisions focused on making reforms to the manner in which the Patent and Trademark Office handles challenges brought there to patents. Whether the Senate bill has struck the right balance will be seen in the course of the markup.
In the House, the Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on Americans being detained in Iran on Tuesday. And the Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a two-days hearing on agency compliance with the Freedom of Information Act and government transparency issues.
Note: due to Kaitlyn McClure’s absence this week, the complete schedule of hearings that typically accompanies this column did not get prepared. It will resume its appearance next week.